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Where is the Land of Opportunity Now?

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Americans grow up with the idea that theirs is the land of opportunity and other places are repressed. Recent polls still say that more people around the world would pick the United States of America over any other country to emigrate to. Yet the young and educated are flowing out of the US faster than they ever have before. Now Chile, Mongolia, Brazil and others have the social, economic, and governmental regimes that foster growth and encourage pioneers while the mature USA evolves with ever higher restrictions and taxes.

What is the old saw about toilet water circulating one way north of the equator and the other way south? Well, the same question can be asked about the brain drain. Is it flowing into or out of the USA? Is the inflow influenced by Hollywood and other pop culture, while the outflow by faster economic growth in the developing countries and high taxes in the US?

Since the ice age migrants have ebbed and flowed, always seeking better conditions. It appears to me that we currently are experiencing mass migrations of epic proportions. Mexicans and other Latin Americans pouring into the US are now a matter of recent history. In the last decade the population of Ireland first increased rapidly and then decreased even faster. The last three years have seen Greek citizens emigrating to Greek enclaves around the world. Similarly Hong Kong absorbed the millions of Chinese seeking a better life, and Singapore ballooned with those from Malaysia and other Southeastern Asians. Who’s next?

I have read about a few studies that show people are leaving the stagnated, mature (read over-taxed and over-restricted) countries for the emerging economies. One example is the skyrocketing growth of the liberal Dubai at the expense of its conservative neighbors like Saudi Arabia. One recent survey by the marketers America Wave claims that the percentage of Americans between 25 and 34 who are actively planning to relocate outside the US has increased to 5.1 percent from less than 1 percent in 2009.

Each year the US is tightening its tax regime for higher incomes and money earned and held abroad. This corresponds with the number of persons renouncing their US citizenships. (The US is one of the very few countries taxing residents and citizens on their income earned away from their home country.) According to government records, 1,780 did so renounce in 2011 compared with only 235 in 2008. An untypical but interesting example is Eduardo Saverin, the billionaire co-founder of Facebook. Saverin was born in Brazil, moved to the U.S. in 1992, and became a US citizen in 1998. He is now a resident of Singapore and in 2011 renounced his US citizenship in order to reduce his heavy tax burden.

More typical examples of the flow out of the US are employees of corporations, both domestic and international, who are expanding their businesses in the emerging markets such as Brazil, India, and, of course, China, which accounts for the largest single chunk of new assignments abroad. Most of these temporary expats will return to the US, but many, experience has shown, get hooked on the adventure of extended travel or discover a lifestyle they prefer and will more or less permanently settle in a foreign country or even become global nomads, continuously relocating to where life is the best for them at the moment.

Everyone in the western US is familiar with Mexican migrants sending money back home to support their extended families. In Europe and beyond everyone knows someone who employs Filipino help who do the same. Since the US median income has not grown since 2007 and the lower end falls further behind, some financial writers predict we will see more Americans finding jobs abroad and remitting funds back to their poorer families. The US State Department in 2011 estimates that 6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad, the highest number on record.

Other studies have shown this trend is steadily building a support base of young people. Most colleges and universities are seeing continuous growth in the popularity of Study Abroad programs – not surprisingly, because graduates who studied abroad are being employed more quickly and earning more money than those who didn’t, no doubt being placed in those new positions in the expanding economies.

Globalization, cloud computing, or whatever trend is next all influence how people and governments react. Some tend to be more adaptable than others. The young and the needy will make the extra effort to seek out opportunity as the world moves on while the rest of us bemoan the world going to hell in a handbasket. That hasn’t changed since the last ice age.

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About Michael Shepherd

  • Igor

    Taxes are not much incentive because taxes are generally lower in the US than most of those countries.

    Upward mobility used to be the big USA advantage, but anyone who can read knows that we’ve lost (or thrown away) that edge over the past 30 years. Whether it’s low inheritance taxes or low “capital gains” taxes, the USA has moved toward re-enforcing the grip of rich families on positions of power and influence in our economy. You just have to look at the financial circumstances of the Romney family to understand that.